One of the few roles for government on which most people of varying political stripes can agree is the defense of citizens—including protection from terrorist attacks. So why is the U.S. government aiding the terrorists in terrorizing Americans?

For the holiday season and perhaps beyond, the U.S. government has raised the threat level in the nationwide five color-coded alert system to orange (meaning “high”) from yellow (the mid-range value meaning “elevated”). News of that change, beamed around the country, made many Americans jumpy during the height of the holiday travel season. But that outcome is the very goal of the terrorists.

Terrorists terrorize the population by killing a few people—or in the case of the September 11 attacks, more than a few—and making the rest fearful. A government should do everything possible to prevent that outcome, but the U.S. government’s alert system does the opposite.

Of course, the U.S. security agencies tell us that the alert level was raised for the public’s own good on the basis of “the most specific and credible information we’ve had, period.” Giving those bureaucracies the benefit of the doubt, specific threats to certain places in the country may have existed (although the French government seemed more skeptical of the threat from French flights bound for Los Angeles). But why make all 285 million Americans fearful just to increase security in a few “threatened” cities? Even in the post-September 11 world, most Americans—particularly those that do not reside in the nation’s several largest cities—have an astronomically low chance of ever being the victim of a terrorist attack. For example, why should the farmer in Iowa be “spun up” in a nationwide terror alert when the threat is likely to be against large cities, such as Los Angeles, Washington or New York? Thus, true security has little to do with the nationwide warning system.

Why can’t federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies quietly notify state and local law enforcement and emergency management officials in a threatened area without unduly alarming the public nationwide or even in that region? Before the nationwide alert system was initiated in March 2002 during the post-September 11 hysteria, that more sensible method of operation was used.

Although raising the alert level nationwide results in greater state and local protection of, for example, subway stations, shopping malls and airports, it probably wastes scarce state and local resources where the threat is not acute and gives the general citizenry everywhere no useful information about what they should do. The government’s advice to the public essentially boils down to “be alert and keep shopping so the economy won’t go south.” But, unfortunately, many people that are little threatened by terrorism do become fearful and curtail their normal activities—all with consequences for the economy. Impairing the U.S. economy through excessive fear is one of the primary goals of the terrorists.

Israel, which has a much more severe problem with terrorist attacks against its homeland than does the United States, does not have a formal terror threat index, and Britain abandoned its formal index for the threat from Irish Republican Army bombings. According to Ami Ayalon, former chief of Israel’s internal security service, alarming the general public is “ultimately a mistake.” He added: “What do you expect people to do? They’ll get scared. In many cases, I preferred to take the risk and not to say anything, because I realized by warning everyday about possible terror actions—after one, two or three times, you know what you get: a terrorized society that is becoming weaker and weaker.”

In contrast, the U.S. security bureaucracies have now toggled the alert system between the “elevated” color of yellow and the penultimate orange five times precisely because they are risk averse. They have never hiked it to red—the highest level—because that might send the public into panic mode and ruin the economic statistics. Similarly, they have never lowered it to the two levels below yellow (green or blue) because that might be an invitation for terrorists to attack when the defenses are down. Also, if such an attack occurred, the security agencies would be accused of complacency. Thus, bureaucrats tend to “overwarn” the public.

Of course, this leads to the question of whether a public, nationwide alert system can be manipulated by the terrorists for their own ends. It gives terrorists information about the state of American defenses and how much U.S. security agencies know about their activities. Also, the terrorists can “spin up” U.S. defenses by increasing chatter about attacks, which they know the U.S. government monitors. They can then observe U.S. defensive activities to discover weaknesses.

The country would be both safer and less fearful with a more low-key alert system, targeted to state and local agencies that specific intelligence shows to be under threat at a particular time. Instead, we have a high profile, nationwide threat index that draws a bull’s eye on America, helps the terrorists achieve their goal of inducing fear and creates only the illusion that the government is protecting us.